The Fifth Element #90 Page 2

I presented to Hsu a hypothetical case: a 19' by 13' post-and-beam room with 10'-high sidewalls and a peaked ceiling, housing a pair of Sonus Faber Amati Futura speakers driven by Audio Research electronics. Short of the 50% coverage target, Hsu believes that the Pareto-optimal (my phrase) ZR Technology installation for an ambitious home listening room of this size would cost between $15,000 and $25,000. However, he also said that the "ultimate experience" would require spending $50,000 or more. What spending more gets you is even more of the music as it was recorded, with fewer of the room's sonic fingerprints on it—and a much wider sweet spot.

I recommend that anyone contemplating spending a substantial sum of money on room treatments invest the price of an airplane ticket and a brief hotel stay to visit and listen to a completed DHDI installation.

That Desert Island List
In view of Hanson Hsu's eclectic tastes, I allowed him a Baker's Dozen selections, as follow. As for the criteria by which to select recordings, Hsu and I were on the same page: personal significance trumps audio quality or importance to music history.

A few of his picks were not at all surprising: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy), the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out (Columbia/Legacy), Steely Dan's Gaucho (MCA), and Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark (Elektra/Asylum). He also wanted a Doobie Brothers greatest-hits collection (Rhino, but there are others), as a memento of his years of working in live-sound reinforcement during that golden age of rock.

Other rockish albums on Hsu's list were Rage Against the Machine's eponymous first (Epic), Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick (Manhattan/EMI), and Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (Arista). One pick almost defied categorization: Robert Miles and Trilok Gurtu's Miles Gurtu (Salt), which is ambient, improvisatory, and experimental, and which Hsu singled out for its sound quality, especially "Soul Driven."

From the classical side of the aisle comes Colin Davis's 1966 recording of Handel's Messiah (Philips). With its 40 choristers and 39 instrumentalists, this was one of the earliest—perhaps the earliest—historically informed reconsiderations of Handel's most famous oratorio, performances of which had grown somewhat bloated over the previous 200 years.

Two opera picks bring the total up to 13: Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland's recording of La Traviata (Decca), with Richard Bonynge conducting the National Philharmonic—even though it was recorded in 1979, after the close of Pavarotti's golden first decade (1961–1971). He first sang with Sutherland in 1963, on a tour of Australia, a hugely important career break he got partly because the 5' 9" Sutherland wanted a tenor taller than herself.

Hanson Hsu's lucky pick 13 is the soundtrack of The Fifth Element (Virgin), particularly for the track in which the Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco), an alien, sings a selection from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Director Luc Besson, it turns out, is a Maria Callas fan. However, because Besson's favorite version, Callas's live 1955 mono recording, is sonically unsuitable for use in a modern film, Albanian soprano Inva Mula came highly recommended as being the next best thing.

A Very Respectable Cable Contender
A relatively new entrant in the crowded market of audio cables is Tellurium Q, founded in Somerset, England, by chemist and materials scientist Geoff Merrigan and engineer Colin Wonfor. Wonfor's résumé includes consulting work as an amplifier designer for Naim and Cambridge Audio. Merrigan and Wonfor's meeting at a UK recording studio led to a discussion of what the weak links in the studio's signal chain might be. Wonfor convinced Merrigan that there remained room for improvement in cable design.

Tellurium Q's design approach is iterative—they claim to have discovered no single magic bullet. Instead, they say they devote significant time and money to R&D. Merrigan states on the company's website, "Research is our passion and our customers are the beneficiaries of this." They seek to mediate among the impacts of metallurgy, cable geometry, dielectric materials, and connectors. Merrigan: "When you understand what a signal actually may be and can model the way it is likely to behave . . . it is then time to do a bit of a balancing act."

What Merrigan is talking about is a concept I'm very familiar with, and have heard expressed by more than one audio designer. My favorite ways of putting it are: "You squeeze it here and it bulges out there," and "To get this, you have to give up that."

In making such judgment calls at each step of the design process, Tellurium Q's self-proclaimed Prime Directive is to minimize phase distortion. That said, Tellurium Q's website is very short on specifics as to how they go about doing so. That's understandable, and I don't have a problem with it.

Tellurium Q makes interconnects (single-ended and balanced), speaker cables, and power cords, in three product families: Blue, Black, and Silver, with two or three levels of price within each family. I received, from US importer Fidelis High-End Home Audio & Theater balanced interconnects (XLR) from the lowest price level of the middle family, Black ($500/1m pair).

Tellurium Q's Black interconnects appeared well made, and were neither remarkably rigid nor remarkably flexible. The presentation is definitely anti-snob: plain black cables in a box of plain white cardboard, with text in one color silkscreened onto it. I think the message they're trying to send is that the value of the cable lies in its sound, not in the "ownership experience" of pulling up a satin ribbon to open a velvet-lined hardwood box.

After some break-in (assisted by Ayre Acoustics and Cardas Audio's Irrational, But Efficacious! System Enhancement Disc, Version 1.2), as a starting point I compared the Tellurium Q Blacks with another pair of balanced interconnects: Canare's cheap'n'cheerful L-4E6S, with Neutrik black and gold-pinned XLRs, from Markertek (ca $45/pair, including shipping).

The Tellurium Q Blacks sounded quieter and far less closed-in at the top than the Canares, as revealed by the tape hiss, ca 1956, in "Easy to Love," from Ella Fitzgerald's The Cole Porter Songbook, Volume Two (CD, Verve 821 990-2). With that track, the Canares acted as a rather obvious tone control. Overall, the Tellurium Q Blacks did a much better job of representing the middles of piano notes, and of doing justice to Fitzgerald's voice without overemphasizing her sibilants.

My listening impressions of the Tellurium Qs were very favorable. The Blacks were on the slightly warm or musical side of neutral, and in that regard reminded me of any number of celebrated British audio products, such as Harbeth's P3ESR, their current variation on the BBC's LS3/5A minimonitor. The noise floor was very low, with a very "black" background, and the quality usually called transparency was certainly present but not maxed out—as in a flat-panel TV with its edge definition turned all the way up.

Then, in an unfair comparison, I replaced the Tellurium Q Blacks with Cardas Clears (balanced), which, at over $2000/pair, cost more than four times the Blacks' price. No, the Blacks didn't have the Clears' frequency extension, dynamic freedom, musical authority, or top-to-bottom sense of thereness. However, the comparison did point out that there was more than a slight resemblance in the basic sound of both interconnects—and, just as important, that the errors or shortcomings I heard in the Tellurium Q Blacks were all sins of omission, not commission. Moreover, the Blacks are the lowest-priced of Tellurium Q's middle family of products. Choosing one of Tellurium Q's top-end cables might well have closed the performance gap to some degree.

Tellurium Q's lack of a story to tell, or of some sort of secret sauce, is, in its own way, refreshing. Their balanced Black interconnect made a favorable sonic impression and presents a favorable value proposition. Of course, the most important factor in audio is the interface of the speakers with the room, and the second most important is the amplifier's ability to satisfy the electrical demands, quirks, and whims of the speakers. It's not a cable's fault if it can't smooth out the rough spots in every system's sound. That said, if you're shopping for an entry-level premium cable, Tellurium Q's Black line is well worth exploring.

For Deep-Catalog Classical Collectors
An off-the-beaten-path CD recommendation: a collection of monophonic recordings of violinist Nathan Milstein (1904–1992) made by RCA from 1949 to 1951, a nearly forgotten phase of Milstein's career (CD, Naxos Historical 8.110975). The CD includes the Dvorák Violin Concerto, with Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Glazunov's Violin Concerto (which Milstein had performed in the composer's presence in 1923), with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg; and an Adagio, K.261, and a Rondo, K.373, by Mozart, with Vladimir Golschmann and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra.

Milstein's 1957 stereo recording of the Dvorák concerto (Steinberg/Pittsburgh SO; Capitol/EMI) is a landmark recording prized on vinyl old or new. I was taken aback at how much more idiomatic and openheartedly expressive I found the Doráti/Minneapolis, which predates it by six years. I can't help but think that I now find the 1957 recording lacking in comparison because, perhaps being a labelmate of Heifetz's at RCA had convinced Milstein that he had to amp up the energy level in his playing, if only for competitive and not musical reasons. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of Doráti being a better conductor of Dvorák.

The Glazunov is good clean fun, and the Mozart pieces glow with aristocratic refinement. The 1951 sound isn't bad, but compared with the famous later stereo releases, it's a bit boxy and lacks high treble extension. However, Milstein's fabled violin tone is very much front and center. This CD is available only as an import (try eBay), most likely because the recordings may be public domain in Europe but not in the US.


Bansaku's picture

Back in the day audiophiles used to throw up carpet or curtains on the wall behind the speakers. Cheap, sometimes ugly, but effective. :P

Just the facts's picture

Imagine the purity when you eliminate all effects and save money by just taking your speakers outside. Only pesky ground reflections. Sitting atop a tall pole and pointing your speakers up solves that.

Doctor Fine's picture

Domestic audio rooms are sometimes loaded with bad sounding reflected energy which cancels out frequencies, blurs some and creates in general false information to your music playback.
Luck may have it that some rooms are naturally in better shape than others thus leaving most of the work to speaker placement and attention to a clean soundfield (don't put turntables in front of woofers etc).
But other rooms may benefit from sound absorption discretely placed where it kills room reverb.
My current listening room can not tolerate sonex panels up front but a rear wall is out of the sight lines and calling for damping material.
And I wasn't in need of front curtains but they would help a lot up front with killing secondary reflections so in they go.
The well considered purchase of competent lively audio components is half the challenge in getting high quality playback.
The room is the other half.
Considering a good basic system costs over 20 grand the least an intelligent soul could do is spend a few shekels on getting the room to help the sound.
Common sense.